I was astride a Cannondale CAAD 10 in Liquigas colours. I had no idea who Liquigas were (a now defunct pro-team with the ubiquitous doping history) and if the bike was any good (turns out it’s something of a modern classic) but the nice young man in the bike shop had convinced me that parting with the best part of £1200 on the bike and necessaries was the right thing for this early middle-aged, recently ex-runner with a knackered back to be doing. Turning left and up the hill out of Gavin’s apartment I passed the Office de Tourisme and then the ubiquitous French mountain village water fountain (I later discovered that these were possibly one of the greatest French inventions of all time if you have anything to do with up hill road bike riding). I passed the Solaise Express and pondered why I wasn’t strapping a mountain bike to the lift so that it could take the strain on the way up and release me to the mercy of gravity for my return trip. But I hadn’t, and more pressingly I had told Mrs U and the kids that I would see them at the top in “a little while”. Back in 2013 I had no idea of “collecting Col’s” or “Strava segments”, but I knew the area well from many winters skiing and I knew that if I followed the road out of Val D’Isere and through Le Fornet I would climb passed the ski lifts and eventually find my way to the coffee shop-come-convenience store at the foot of the Pissalis glacier. The presence of a glacier should perhaps have warned me that this was quite high up and therefore something of a climb. I had failed to appreciate that the Col de l’Iseran at 2770m is the highest paved Col in the Alps and that the road ascends at a constant 6% for 15km gaining 895m in altitude…….a rather odd place for a beginner.
Somewhat surprisingly I made it, in one go, without stopping, to the very top. It wasn’t fast (the French whippet who went passed me like I was going backwards about halfway up can testify to that) and it wasn’t pretty (I have photos) but my macabre love for mountain climbing was born.
The next mountain I climbed was even more challenging than the first. I’d started with an HC (hors categorie; literal translation “beyond category”) climb, the toughest rating out of 5 (HC, 1, 2, 3 & 4) on the “how bloody hard is this hill” score devised by the Tour de France fantasy league conveners and therefore dispensed with anything less and headed straight for Mont Ventoux. It was Paul’s idea. He has a house down there and knows the roads. I should have listened harder when he said “I hate that bloody mountain, but I will ride it with you”. Paul is a veteran of the Haute Route and many other mountain cycling extravaganzas, so what he really meant was “of course I will be happy to film your suffering at the hands of the Giant of Provence, and yes I will laugh uncontrollably as you whimper with cramp in every muscle in both your legs”. He made sure this would take place by convincing me that we needed a “little warm up” before Ventoux, but at least he bought me pizza at the bottom.
I went back last year to finish off the “taming of Ventoux” and with Brian “I will convert to fat burning soon” Stedman the three of us became Les Cingles. It was possibly the lack of oxygen, or sugar, or both at the end of this ridiculous day of cycling that led to the conception of the Worthy Wheelers summer adventure for 2018. It had to be tough (really) and it had to be in the mountains. Multiple days (henceforth known as “Stages” because we are cyclists you know) and multiple Col’s. It made no sense to us to do what every other right-minded tourist-rider would do and stay in one place so that logistics were easy. Not for us a simple check-in to one hotel for four days of different climbs from a beautiful base, like Lake Annecy for example. Nope, we were going to ride from Geneva to Turin. Four stages, 500km of riding with 11000 meters of climbing. Anyone was welcome to join us (not that we expected anyone to actually be crazy enough) but they had to commit early to some serious training and a degree of self-sufficiency.
Stage 1 – July 26th 2018 – Annemasse to Beaufort
Rolling out at 08:30 ‘ish, our complete inability to get going on time in the mornings became something of a theme, 13 (yes 12 others had actually spent their own money and used up annual leave for this) lycra-clad flat-track bullies rode around Annemasse looking for somewhere to take a picture. The astute reader will realise that Annemasse isn’t quite Geneva, but we had seen the Jet d’eau from the aeroplane and that was good enough for us. A photo in front of the war memorial was taken and the peloton sped its way towards the mountains.
I soon realised that the winter evenings spent planning the routes and writing rider notes for the team had primarily been for my benefit only.
“How far today Tim?”
“How many climbs today Tim?”
“Is this a category 1 or HC…..”
And repeat. You get the picture.
Fortunately for the most part I knew the answer and if I didn’t a quick calculation was made on the size and severity of the lie to be told based on the “f#*kedness index” of the rider.
For, “Oh, it’s only a Cat 2 I think, relatively short and a nice incline…….beautiful views”, read Cat 1 or possibly HC (depending on which Tour stage it was ridden), 8% average and you will be totally broken and asking quietly for your Mum. No amount of electrolyte water, Winnie the Pooh sticky bars or snot-like gels will make it better.
We stopped at the bottom of the first climb to take stock. The Col de la Colombiere was our “Amuse Bouche”, before the main course of Aravis and Saises on our way to Beaufort. The Tour had just passed this way and home favourite Julian Alaphilippe had motored to victory in stage 10 in something like 3 and a half minutes. The refuelling took slightly longer than predicted in the crystal-clear rider notes as although 13 cyclists in the grip of fear and excitement were able to find the “church at the bottom of the climb” the otherwise exemplary support crew with multiple mapping devices and a van went to “the other church”.
Tanks full and bladders empty up we went. Soon the natural order of mountain climbing was established. The peloton found it rhythm, the grupetto failed to find theirs and the first break-away was upon us. Phil “The Power” Boardman had cheated and been up this climb a couple of weeks earlier. Four or five bends in he poured on the eponymous power. About 90 Watts carried his 15kg frame clear of the bunch. Soon a 300m lead had been established and despite cries of “what the f**k are you doing” and “I thought we weren’t racing” he was maintaining the gap. Steroids? Salbutamol? His physique suggested not. EPO? Possibly. Getting a break in early? More likely. A guaranteed wearer for the “Coq du Jour” tomorrow? You bet. The peloton held it’s never. With Watts on the front (both in name, Chris, and in output) the gap was controlled. “He’s not a threat to the GC” was heard from the chasing pack.
It’s fair to say that we were all getting a bit carried away with things. Like the Winchester and District Sunday league pub team top-scorer comparing himself to Harry Kane after 5 pints of Stella in the Mucky Duck, we really believed that we were suffering like the pros as we pounded up the Colombiere. In reality this was the set-up for a day of unfathomable, hotter-than-the-centre-of-the-sun like heat and we were only 1 climb out of 3 into the riding.
For the record, the natural order of things was resumed when the “Fat Burner” started to burn fat and belied his 3 months of alcoholic training to real in The Power with 3 km to go…..the rest, as they say, is history……..and Tom was resuscitated.
Aravis came and went in a blur of ski-lifts and cow-bells following a speedily consumed pizza in Le Grand Bornand. In theory the climb to Les Saises, the site of my first ever ski trip as an unaccompanied minor in exchange for teaching the mayors daughter English, was the easiest. Add 38-degree heat (yes really) and 13 knackered humans and survival was the only commodity to deal in. Fat Burner’s fuel was molten and had been discarded on the mountain like the spent offerings from a Margate chippy. His crumpled husk took comfort by nestling in the machinations of a 1960’s button lift. The support crew realised the impending catastrophe and provided a series of unplanned stops (legendary work here) for hydration and moral support. Descending into Beaufort the boys realised the game was up. None of us could match Fiona on Princess Scarlet on the downhills, not even close, she can descend like a pro.
The support crew had gone ahead and our rooms were ready with keys already in the doors. Hamish, ex-pro rugby player, sports physiologist, masseuse and all-round nice guy (he will hate that) started massaging, while Lewis, expert van driver, master of alcohol and bike builder par excellence got to work on the bikes. Of course, the team had understood the importance of the bit in the rider notes that said “make sure your bike has been serviced”, that’s why a broken spoke had to be reacquainted with it’s nipple and a bottom bracket had to come out….. Richard “The Dark Horse” Ellis had already blotted his copy book by trying to replace a pair of tubeless tyres on the evening of van departure, leading to countless swears, late night phone calls and an even later night bike delivery, and the coup-de-grace, persuading his kids to buy and then deliver a high-pressure seating pump to the van the next morning. It was never to be used. Perhaps building a bike from scratch wasn’t the best idea for a gastroenterologist, it was his bottom bracket.
Stage 2 – July 27th 2018 – Beaufort to Lanslebourg-Mont-Cenis
The Queen. Not in an “Off with their head’s” Elizabeth The First way, or an “Oh….OOOh…..on tonight’s show” Graham Norton style. This was the stage that mattered, the Queen stage. Over 4100m of climbing packed into 130km of distance. The Col de Pre, because the Tour had been that way and Watts (human version) said we had to, the top of the Cormet de Roseland, on to Bourg St Maurice and from there up, up, up to reacquaint myself and introduce my friends to the Iseran. I knew what was coming, others didn’t. The deceit wasn’t so easy today…….
“How far is it, Tim?”
“Quite a long way”.
“How much climbing?”
“Category 1 or 2 today?”
“Well there is some, yes”.
Rob Walker designed Gin and Tonic (Geneva to Turin, G2T, I’m sure you get it) inspired team kit donned and Heartburn Cancer UK promo photo in the middle of the street taken, off we set. In fact, off set 12. My power meter wasn’t working. As any middle-aged cyclist obsessed with data knows, this is the end of days. Like the opening scenes from Terminator 2, to start the Queen stage with no power data (however spectacularly irrelevant it really is) provoked total desolation. I hadn’t spent 9 months training to numbers to not have them now. Up stepped the support crew again. Swallowed button batteries are the bane of the paediatric emergency department world, burning through a pristine childhood oesophagus in a nanosecond, but right now the presence of a CR2032 in the handbag of Mrs U (ostensibly travelling as our very own mobile emergency department for not quite fit enough adults) felt like the cure for all psychiatric diseases, especially cycling related neurosis.
But now I had a problem. Power meter fully calibrated and bike ready to go, I was about 10 minutes behind. A choice had to be made. Save myself for later, knowing that I would catch up at the drink stops and lunch, or burn some matches early on the 12.6km, 7.7% average Col du Pre? Only one option really existed, out came the match box.
The peloton is like a great white in a feeding frenzy, it senses blood in the water at the first drop. My “mates” knew what to do and had taken the opportunity to ride tempo ahead of me. Fortunately, the grupetto had dropped some early targets out the back, like bread crumbs for Hansel and Gretel. Unfortunately, a wrong turn in Areche (site of another of my childhood ski trips with the English Professor’s family from Annecy) put me further behind. Time for some personal mind games. Now I was Michal Kwiatkowski driving the Sky train onwards (I think it’s OK to mention their name again now that GT has won the Tour), forgetting that his job is to explode before the top. A match burned. With the gap closed to the grupetto I pushed on to the peloton only to find that the break-away had well and truly broken away and there was no chance of catching them.
This was outstanding work by the leading group who were first to turn the final corner and view Mont Blanc in the distance framed between the v-shaped foreground rising up on either side of our thin slither of tarmac. “Breath taking” and “epic” are words too often used to describe the not quite usual, like a really good coffee on a club run or a quite fast training ride with a couple of PRs on Strava. But the view from the top of the Col du Pre is perhaps one of the best in the entire world. The snow-capped high peaks in the distance hint at the hostility of nature in another season, which in the mountains could be tomorrow. Beneath us the 1950’s hydroelectric hand of man had actually enhanced the surroundings by creating an expanse of pure azure-blue water that seemed to reflect the hue of the heavens themselves. Having reached this haven of natural beauty I was trying hard to recover the match box and any remaining remnants of matches that it might have contained when the phone rang.
“This is BBC Radio Solent (pause), Ok to do that interview?”
“Um, yes, no problem……..”.
I’d completely forgotten that back in the UK they had run out of newsworthy events, like the loss of Mrs Jones’ chocolate hobnob into her elevenses cuppa, and had resorted to phoning an out of breadth local surgeon for an update on the weather in France.
“So now I’m happy to welcome our weather watcher and regular to the programme; it’s Tim from Umbria with an update on all things Italian”
Tim from Umbria. No, definitely not me. Crossed lines? Perhaps another caller before me then. But no, I was on the radio live. I can tell you I was tempted to delve into the intricacies of Italian politics, bunga-bunga parties and all, but on account of decency and the GMC I quickly backed Julian into a corner with a “you must have the wrong Tim”.
The day progressed serenely from then on. Tom had been resuscitated. We crossed the dam wall to sounds of Hamish-rung cow bells to rendezvous with the support van. A short climb to the top of the Cormet de Roseland with a truce called in the cycling hostilities, followed by a superb descent, camper vans excepted, into Bourg St Maurice for coffee. More calories should have been consumed here. For what was to come next was the most energy sapping and loathsome piece of road on our travels. The boys from the Col Collective recommend getting a transfer from Bourg to Val d’Isere, and with good reason. About 1000 meters of climbing on roads populated with bikers and granite-shifting camions with a short season to get their work done. Tunnels with a road surface one can only imagine they would be proud of on Mars, all rocks and craters in the dark. For a short time the conversation turned to whether or not they would need to resort to DNA testing if we were hit by one of the camions and how many limbs they would actually recover (Brian thought 3 between us).
There was some tetchiness at lunch, a sure sign of the near-bonk status of many, but club sandwich and chips and 2 full fat Cokes later (I never drink full fat Coke) things were feeling better. For now, it was time to do battle once again with the Iseran. The formidability of a climb can be judged by the loss of any pronoun and the use of a single word descriptor. That right is reserved for the very hardest and very best. I’d traded up the Cannondale to something slightly better and I was determined to do it justice. This was a feeling shared by the hive-mind around me. We knew this would be special. We were going high, we were already 3-parts exhausted, but we were going to crest this beast of the Alps and photos with road signs would be taken to prove it!
Each man and woman found their rhythm. Similarly paced groups appeared across the mountain. A wheel was taken, a wheel was offered and the tarmac passed beneath us. The on-looking marmots and ibex, masters of the mountains, were welcome if taunting distractions. The times weren’t important, but each of us pushed to the limits of possibility at 2770 meters where the air is surprisingly thin and cold. Vince made a meal of it, claiming altitude induced asthma and the requirement for a TUE, but in reality, moving 95kg up hill is quite hard. More coffee and cake (stop it Vince) was taken at the top and the support crew stayed to cheer Tom over the line for his 5th resuscitation. Jackets and leg warmers were applied and we reminded Fiona to take care on the descent because tiredness can lead to bad decisions and up here bad decisions lead to…….she heard none of it and we only caught her after 30km on the flat, chain-ganging to close the gap. I will forever feel guilty for suggesting that she then stop to take her jacket off causing her to miss a 50km QOM by 2 seconds…..oops we’ll have to do it again (sorry Britney).
We will brush aside the fact that 3 of us rode straight passed the hotel and into the next village down the valley and conclude that the Queen had given everything we could ask of her and she had taken plenty of us too. The big question now was could we recover enough for tomorrows classic combination of the Telegraphe and the Galibier?
Stage 3 – July 28th 2018 – Lanslebourg-Mont-Cenis to Briancon
Lewis had been busy again overnight. The mountains take their toll on drive-trains and wheels, but these could be fixed. Looking at the faces of the assembled “racers” something more than an overnight service might be required for some, but recovery would have to take place on the move. If we ever actually got “on the move”. Vincent’s new wheels both had punctures and despite help the change wasn’t exactly Formula 1. Only 25km down the road we had to change them again……….
The “Coq du Jour” had been decided by the van-based Commissures based on battery changing faff, so Italian Dan (more of his profound Italian-ness later) had relinquished his long-term possession of the bright yellow helmet cover. To be fair, being first over the Aravis on Day 1 should have bought Dan some early respite, but nothings fair in love and cycling holidays.
The first 40km down the valley was time to eat, drink and prepare. There was a little bit of excitability as we remembered that carbon-framed Tour-bike look-a-likes with deep section wheels prefer to be ridden above single digit speeds, but in general the peloton was well behaved, anticipating some work ahead.
Best not to mention the “stop by the church” in Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne; who could have predicted that a catholic country would have so many churches? Or the loss of van keys in the mad panic to dress the ex-pro rugby player as substitute rider for his first experience in bib-shorts (hahahahahaha……). Ridden North to South the Col du Telegraphe is the warm-up act for the “Giant of the Alps”, the Galibier. The GC would be decided today. The London crew had found their legs. Their Puncheur-in-chief, Chris PJ was bossing the grupetto and bridging to the peloton; Captain Walker had recovered from his logistical machinations (not only did he design the jerseys, but he drove Kaitlin, the super-van provided by my over-generous brother and his company SAS Rope and Rail, through France and back again from Turin) to become something of a Rouleur for their new-found GC contender, Phil “Victorious” Vickers. Tom was on resuscitation number 7.
Fiona was already QOM and had decided to dispense with battle in favour of a family outing with ex-pro on his adapted bike and in his trainers. Italian Dan was happily lighting up the Lantern Rouge leaving a straight fight between The Power, Fat Burner, Watts by nature, Vincent’s new wheels, The Dark Horse (who had been dark-horsing for 2 days, clippity-clop), Yours Truly and the ever-present quiet assassin Andy Shawyer. Never custodian of the Coq du Jour, The Assassin had slipped unseen into every break-away and gone about his business on the climbs in Froomesque fashion, never drawing attention with a stage win, but always gaining time on his rivals. Shame his 1990’s bike was like the Japanese bridge from physics lessons of yesteryear, exhibiting near-perfect simple harmonic motion above 25kph on the descents (Andy, get a new bike mate!)
So, to battle and the first skirmishes on the slopes of the Telegraphe. In the first light drizzle of the tour and with thunder echoing around the valley below us as if the God’s were drumming their accompanying rhythm, Watts by nature took off at a furious pace. Gaps appeared immediately and we wondered how long this could last? Was this folly with the Galibier to come? How many matches were we prepared to burn? How many were left?? Chapeau’s were exchanged at the top after an hour of proper racing.
Where was the van? A phone call revealed it hadn’t moved an inch. No keys…….ex-pro………clown man……
We reconvened by the church in Valloire to take in pasta and a café Gourmand. This was a chance to discuss strategy for the monster to come. It boiled down to “do whatever you need to do to get over the top”. Ex-pro was keen to continue his family outing and to be fair getting within 5km of the top with no training and carrying about 200kg of excess upper body mass was no mean feat. This did however slow down Fiona and Princess Scarlet somewhat, time to be made up on the downhill to Briancon. The Galibier was brooding. Clouds threatened unseasonal precipitation which was confirmed by the descending Frenchman’s vanishing warning “il neige sur la Galibier”. It couldn’t be could it? Late July, 25 degrees in Valloire, sweat pouring with the demands of 8, 9, 10 % inclines and snow at the top?
Ventoux is an unremitting bastard of a mountain, sitting as it does, by itself, dominating the views of Provence. But at only 1900 meters snow is unlikely and the air is full of oxygen. The mistral can play havoc, as it did with the Tour in 2016 when the stage finished at Chalet Reynard, but sun-burn and dehydration are the more likely enemies. The Galibier by comparison is higher (much higher) and although the numbers look less frightening (18.1 kilometres long at an average of 6.9% (height gain: 1,245 metres)) The maximum gradient is 10.1% at the summit and when ridden with the Telegraphe constitutes a climb of 34.8 kilometres, gaining 2120 metres. The last kilometre is perhaps the hardest I have ever ridden. It seems to never end and is an unrelenting 9-10 % with hairpin after hairpin keeping the summit from view. At least Frenchman’s snow wasn’t falling. The Galibier is clearly a physical test. The mental test is greater. A right-hand turn after the bridge brings a wall of black-top like no other, out of the saddle or bust. Who puts a tourist Fromagerie 2/3 of the way up, nestling it into the moonscape like it has always been there? And come to think of it, what self-respecting cow is going to spend it’s time up here? Two kilometres at 10% with no one else in sight and near-bonk on the agenda had me hallucinating lunar landing craft and moon-rovers. A gentle turn down on the power, eat and drink…….you will get there.
At the top motorcycle tourists were taking pictures in front of the sign as if being powered up astride a high-performance petrol guzzler was something to be proud of. Get out of the way you Gitanes-smoking imbeciles and let the fast-freezing athletes do their thing. I heard rumours that Tom needed resuscitating twice up here.
The descent to the Col du Lauteret was cold and technical, requiring a restorative hot chocolate and reconvention of the peloton. The Col de Granon was left for another day and we made it to Briancon. The climbing was done, the GC had been decided and nobody cared because the feeling of euphoric success was upon us. Actually, we were all too knackered to do the adding up. Chapeau!
Stage 4 – July 29th 2018 – Briancon to Turin
And so, to Turin. Victory would be ours, of that there was certainty. Standing between us and tea and cakes (actually a 5-course tasting menu courtesy of Graham Smith, another absent friend) was a gentle climb out of the Nevache valley to crest the Col de l’Echelle, a 2km climb, before crossing the border into Italy. Italian Dan was to come to the fore today. That’s why we’d brought him. Most of us had passable conversational French, we could order dinner and ask for the bill, but our Italian was limited. Dan Scoggnamilio (I can’t think if a more Italian sounding and completely unpronounceable name) was our man for all Italian seasons. As we were to cross a supposed border at the top of the Echelle the support crew had collected our passports just in case. All except Dan’s that is. After a catastrophic ordering embarrassment, leading to the best ever flouncing by a waiter I have ever witnessed at dinner the night before, Dan had explained why his UK passport had to stay with him. In a stroke of unimagined Brexit-preventing foresight Signore Scoggnamilio senior had registered Dan as truly Italian. That is to say a dual national who appears on databases (yes, they exist in Italy) in two countries. When he was detained by the Carabinieri trying to leave Sicily after a family holiday with the words “servizio nazionale” and “diserzione” ringing in his ears Italian Dan became ever so British. In true Italian style a “compromise” was reached and Dan was freed, but instructed only to return to Italy to go to Rome to sort out his paperwork. We were sure he had done that………and didn’t probe any further, the Carabinieri had taken care of that. Coq du Jour……make that Coq du Vacances.
I rode with Tom for the final climb. 27 resuscitations had taken their toll. The 10 training rides had not been quite enough preparation. But Tom was the true hero of the tour, proving without doubt what the human condition is capable of. Immense suffering, intolerable pain, unbelievable powers of recovery and the epitome of using the mind to force the body to give more. There is always 20% left when the pain really starts, well nearly always. He was a broken being for that last 2km of up, but up he went, slowly yes, but relentlessly until the top. Legend has it that he even got out of the saddle for a final sprint over the line.
Italy announced herself with another spectacular view out of the mountains and third-world road making. That’s not really fair, to make a road down the side of mountain in the style of the infamous Stelvio takes some doing, but the surface was so full of pot-holes is felt like dodging landmines in war-torn Africa, only without the sniffer dog and at 70kph. We took coffee in Bardonnechia and made our merry way along the 100-odd kilometres downhill to Turin. The route into the city was far better than expected. There was some silliness in the peloton. A lead-out train was formed, but just who was being led out remained a mystery. Fat Burner showed his sprinting skills and someone ended up in a ditch (all very embarrassing). A wallet was lost – and found again – by the new Coq du Jour. Hands off the bars like a 12-year-old we entered our final destination, the Piazza Castello where the children who were playing in the floor mounted fountains were somewhat surprised to be joined by a group of sweaty English cyclists and their bikes.
We celebrated. We dined, we drank, Dan drank more and the youngsters kept on drinking………but what goes on tour stays on tour.
Until next time. G2T2, or possible A1N1.
P.S. Dan can’t speak Italian FFS…………….